Maryland chastity ads going nationwide

December 08, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

A chicken in running shoes, a familiar image to Baltimore youths, debuted yesterday in Little Rock, Ark., on 30 billboards, 5,000 school posters and television public service announcements.

The chicken -- featured in an advertisment whose tag line warns of "a guy who makes a baby and flies the coop" -- is part of a multimillion-dollar campaign designed by a Baltimore ad agency to encourage sexual abstinence among Maryland's youngest adolescents.

Over the past five years, the chicken and other slick ads promoting chastity have commanded attention locally. Now these vivid images are in 36 states nationwide and beyond, from Ontario to the U.S. Virgin Islands, as organizations and government agencies buy into what Maryland officials bill as one of the nation's most successful anti-teen pregnancy campaigns.

Arkansas' child support enforcement agency bought the chicken from the Campaign for Our Children Inc., a non-profit organization set up with public and private money raised by Baltimore advertising executive Hal Donofrio.

His firm, Richardson, Myers & Donofrio, creates the ads but the revenues raised by such sales go back into the Campaign. To date, that's $35,000. But there is potential for thousands more.

Of the Campaign's ads, the most famous, perhaps, is the billboard emblazoned "Virgin -- teach your kids it's not a dirty word."

In other ads, seen on television, transit buses and posters in school hallways, boys who play and don't pay are compared to rats, or asked if their allowances can cover child support payments.

In the most recent, happy teen couples -- one black, one white -- bask in a romantic glow beneath this slogan: "Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder."

Advertising is only one part of the Campaign's push for sexual abstinence. Some states and the federal government are looking at the entire program -- mass media, market research and classroom materials. Thousands of dollars could end up flowing back into the Campaign if these contracts are approved.

Why are so many states attracted to the advertising campaign? Because it looks good and already exists, one state official said, so it can be implemented quickly. It also can be used to complement existing programs. "They were really catchy and well-done," said Judy Jordan, program director for Arkansas' child support enforcement program. "We looked at the cost of doing it ourselves and we saw we could get a good quality product cheaper by buying these."

The ads are memorable. Local middle school students can recite the ad copy, much as they can chant "This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs," an anti-drug public service announcement famous enough to generate parodies.

But do the ads work? The only supporting scientific data is a survey of 95 students at five city middle schools. According to that 1990 study conducted by the Baltimore City Health Department, 91 percent of the students were familiar with the ads, 80 percent described them as "very, very helpful," and 75 percent said the ads encouraged them to talk to their parents about sex.

"The national average [for talking to parents] is 20 percent," said Hal Donofrio, who serves as Campaign's executive director. "If Procter & Gamble got these results, they would spread the program nationally tomorrow morning."

Mr. Donofrio also points out the ads, ideally, are not intended to stand alone.

However, it is the ads -- particularly posters on male responsibility -- that have attracted other states' attention. The Arkansas child support enforcement agency bought the campaign to encourage teen-age boys to pay child support, not to discourage sex.

Rosetta Stith, principal of East Baltimore's Laurence G. Paquin School for pregnant girls and new mothers, praised the ads as "age appropriate."

Her students find the messages about male responsibility especially resonant.

"They've designed a garment that fits the population," Dr. Stith said of the campaign. "Whether they'll wear it, that's another question."

Any other information supporting the ads' effectiveness is largely anecdotal.

At William H. Lemmel Middle School in West Baltimore, Principal Gwendolyn Cook proudly announced at the end of the 1991 school year there had been "only" two eighth-grade pregnancies, down from eight the previous year.

Some of this year's Lemmell students, however, are not convinced the ads make a difference.

"Teen-agers will go out and do what they want to do," said 11-year-old Alexandria Parker, a sixth-grader.

"They don't want anyone telling them what to do."

Her classmate, 11-year-old Terricka Perry, agreed. And the ads have not necessarily encouraged her to talk to her parents about sex, she added.

"Television is what gets me to talk," she said.

"Commercials, sure, but also shows, and even cartoons. If it's on the box, it gets me talking."

But Michael Johnson, 14, has seen the ads' impact. "Some girls stop talking to the boys, period," he said ruefully.

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